In HBO's long-running comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (now in its seventh season), Susan (Susie) Essman plays Susie Greene. Her husband, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), is Larry David's manager in David's alternative universe that is this series. Susie Greene/Essman has the foulest mouth of any of the characters on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Her vocabulary featuring frequent F-Bombs would embarrass a longshoreman. View the following clip at your own risk and marvel at the difference between 21st-century broadcast and cable TV.
If this is (fair & balanced) coprolalomania, so be it.
By Laurie Fendrich
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I came of age when the “f-word” first started entering ordinary conversation among educated people. Although The New York Times still won’t print it, The New Yorker will. The word is now so ubiquitous and ordinary that it’s lost most of its shock value. Most of the time, it barely manages to register, let alone make a point. It remains vulgar, but since the educated and the elite of today adore vulgarity, who cares?
In high school during the late 1960s, I never heard the f-word said out loud, although I knew it existed, of course. I'm sure I must have heard it whispered at slumber parties -- and even whispered it myself -- although I can’t say I remember any occasions in particular. In the 10th grade, I stumbled across Tropic of Cancer on a bookshelf in my older sister’s room, and devoured it there and then.
The juniors and seniors I met during my first semester of college shocked me with their language. They dropped the f-word -- along with a whole batch of other swear words -- as casually as if they were Kleenex. (Mind you, I went to a women’s college, and wasn’t expecting this sort of thing.) Trying desperately to be sophisticated, I imitated their swearing. When I came home for Christmas break, I sat together with my father in the living room -- me with a whiskey sour, he with his scotch. My father was the kind of man who occasionally let fly the word “damn” only to apologize afterwards. Holding my drink, and feeling very much a grownup, I showed off my newly acquired f-word.
The room fell silent. My father stared deep into his scotch before softly saying, “I never thought I’d see the day where I’d spend thousands of dollars to send my daughter off to be educated only to see her return home using this kind of language.” I was ashamed. Yet I also felt a secret surge of pride. In bringing the f-word into our thoroughly middle-class home, I had giddily joined a rebellion I didn't yet fully understand.
At the time, the idea (if you can call it that) was that casual use of the f-word demonstrated freedom from conventions. For women, especially, it meant rejecting the social conventions that considered them vulnerable to an attack of the vapors should they ever hear the f-word. Uttering the f-word seemed to make women the equal of men. Somehow, it deflated the power of men, who were more likely to swear. Add to that the subversiveness of attacking bourgeois culture where it hurt most in its appearance of propriety.
In retrospect after the dust eventually settled it’s easy to see that bringing the f-word out of the closet and into the public sphere destroyed the dignity and beauty of middle-class conversation, established boring speech rhythms centering on repetition of “f-ing,” and smashed to smithereens subtlety, wit, and good diction in ordinary conversation. But that’s in retrospect. At the time, it seemed like an easy and fun liberation from having to conform to "polite" speech.
By the time my daughter was born, I had finally started to curb my swearing. I still used it, but mostly only in private when I stubbed a toe or became heated when listening to talking heads on the television. My husband was about the same, although he a California boy had a fouler mouth than mine. We had a friend a sweet guy, by the way who constructed whole sentences around the f-word. His speech followed the musical pattern “abab,” where a equals f-ing and b equals motherf-er: “That f-ing motherf-er drives me f-ing up the motherf-ing wall.”
Raising my daughter pressured me to stop using the f-word once and for all. When I confronted the problem, I saw that I faced the enormous difficulty of trying to undo an entrenched bad habit when it's most difficult to do so well into adulthood. When my daughter reached the age of 10, she had become keenly sensitive to bad words. Whenever I slipped and swore especially when I used the f-word she’d exclaim, “Mom, don’t!” At one point I agreed to pay her a quarter every time I swore; she was such a little lady that despite her natural and ferocious greed, she felt bad every time she collected a coin.
It’s my impression that young people today swear a lot less than people my age did when we were young. And when I do overhear them saying the f-word, they frequently utter it in a rather cheerful and chirpy way, utterly devoid of the attitude that accompanied the f-word in my day.
To my great consternation, my long-ago habit of swearing is proving difficult to entirely eradicate. The best I can do is to keep it down to a minimum. For whatever it’s worth, in all my years of teaching, I have never once used a swear word anywhere near a student.
“Both in the senate and when addressing individuals, use language that is seemly but not rhetorical. Be sane and wholesome in your speech.” These words come from Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations reflect a being so entirely different from the typical modern being that I read him in wonderment. Whenever I dip into his Meditations (which I’ve been doing periodically, at bedtime, over the past couple of years), I regret deeply that I never managed to rid myself of the f-word. What a grand and beautiful victory I would have had if only I'd pinned the damn word to the mat. Ω
[Laurie Fendrich is professor of fine arts at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Fendrich received a B.A. in political science (magna cum laude) from Mount Holyoke College and an M.F.A. in painting from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.]
Copyright © 2009 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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